Letter to Mr. Xxxxxx

Twice in my life I got in touch with a writer after I read a piece about my music to which I simply had to react.
The first time was some five years ago, and it led to a nice conclusive little exchange of mails. The second time was about three weeks ago. I haven’t heard back from the gentlemen to whom my letter was addressed. So I put it up on over here. If I'm not getting any reaction from him, maybe I’ll get at least into a discussion with some other people. Because that exchange-part is still one of the main ideas behind this blog. So feel free to comment etc. 

Hi Mr Xxxxxx,

I hope you're doing well during these strange times. I got your mail-ID from Ed Xxxxxxxx. Ed has been working on quite some of the cd's I've made or have been involved in. He also sent me two of your recent reviews, namely the one of 'Eden' by The Bureau Of Atomic Tourism, and the one of an acoustic cd I released more than two years ago, 'The Beginners Guide To Diving And Flying' by a groupe of mine Orca Noise Unit.

To be very honest with you, it's only in very rare cases that I can relate to what is written about my music, or even music in general. Music being the most abstract of all art-forms is non-verbal in its very core. Its whole purpose is about being non-verbal, so putting words on music is against its very nature.
I know why I like music, why I make the music I make, and that feeling is quite some miles away from what is evoked, generally speaking, when people write about it, be it in a positive or a negative sens. I once came across a quote by Don Cherry that went something like "The day you start believing the press reviews, it's all over." and that's pretty much how I see it too.

However I do value the whole enterprise of sending out records to journalists, and not only because it is supposed to be part of any business plan. I find it fascinating to see how the same record or music can trigger so many different reactions and observations, and therefore I read most of the articles that come out about my music. It also learns me a great deal about the outside reality, this most complex netwerk of interactions between music and all kinds of different people, writers, the public, organizers, etc. 

Now, when I read the two previously mentioned pieces of yours, I have to say something different seemed to be going on. 
The piece about 'Eden' made me think of the mocking (and often even funny) commentaries of older, tipsy uncles or brothers-in-law during family gatherings. Those commentaries generally communicate a simple observation that we're attracted to different things in life, but also nothing more. I'm the one who's into contemporary art and they like football. Period. But you're not my uncle or brother-in-law, so I didn't know what to make of it. I was thinking: if you feel so little connection to a record, why write about it at all? Or why not simply admit that there was no connection, and write about that, instead of playing tough. 
Then when I saw that you took the time during these crazy times to sit down and write a similar piece about a record that came out more than two years ago, I couldn't help but think that you were trying to get a reaction of some sorts. So here it is; let's converse if you feel like it. You got my attention. Maybe we both can learn a thing or two. 

Kind regards, 

Jozef Dumoulin


  1. 'If you feel so little connection to a record, why write about it at all', I often have asked myself this question. If it's indeed a case of the writer likes football vs the artist likes contemporary art (fig.speaking), and there's been no attempt from the writer's side to at least try to understand the music, raise a question about it or in the very least put it in it's context, the only answer I could come up with is that, from a certain moment, it is only about the career of the author. It's about confirming his ideas about music instead of confronting and challenging them in the light of a new work. Since, in that case, the article is more about the author, it loses all relevance to the music it was written about. In my opinion, that is just bad journalism.
    I don't know if this applies to the articles mentioned above (i didn't read them), but it is for sure something I've observed and been confronted with. Music journalism is quite a wild area where anyone can write about any music, regardless their expertise. This can be actually a most enjoyable fact, 'cause I agree with the statement above; that there is a big limit on putting into words a (mostly) non-verbal art form. Therefore I'm as interested in what anyone wants to say about it, expert or amateur, as long it is a dialogue between 2 views and not the exposition of only one.

    1. Thanks for those thoughts Eli. I'm also all for a dialogue between two views, and I really don't mind if views differ; it is scary when people all start to think kind of alike (in the case of most matters).
      I also don't mind bad journalism so much. I prefer excellent journalism, but everything in this world seems to come in different ways: well done, ok done, crappily done. That's fine.
      In this one I just didn't understand why the writings were so repeatedly gratuitous. Like, I don't know anything about sewing machines, but I also don't put up a blog to share inflamed reviews about them; that was the feeling I got. That fascinated me, and that's why I reached out.

    2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Eli! I definitely agree with your POV about music journalism. Commentators of chess games, boxing, football, Tour de France etc are always people who were very much involved in the field or still are. Music is obviously far from sports but I don't really see that arrangement; maybe there's an unspoken reason for this? I've read a couple reviews by Ken Vandermark tho, (these are not 'official' - I assume he just wanted to share his experiences) on his social media, about shows he attended. I happened to be at one of those and I could really connect with what he wrote. The review made sense.

      Any examples of good and bad journalism? I'd love to read it.

  2. Hi Jozef, I think I had a similar experience, maybe not as personal, with a review about a record I released a while ago. The reviewer wrote something along the lines of “why is he playing this way, he seems like he’s loosing it” haha. And it was about a specific composition that is quiet and subtle so I didn’t really understand it. When I questioned him about it through email, he got back to me saying “he couldn’t recall writing it; so it must have been something he felt at that very moment.” Fine with me, but why did he have to make it concrete by writing it down? I didn’t feel attacked, was just curious to hear his opinion and eventually learn from it. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. It was the first record I released and my first time dealing with press. I still don’t know how to go about it. I barely read reviews, I rather listen. But it seems like reviews are important for our “career?” Bookers seem to like them?

    This makes me think a lot about Rilke’s “letters to a young poet” which also matches your view: "With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: they always come down to more or less happy misunderstanding. Things are not all comprehensible and expressible as one would mostly have us believe; most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious existences, the life of which, while our passes away, endures.

    It’s so ambiguous tho...

    Would it make sense for you (and anyone else who’s reading) to pay to get your music reviewed and published? Seems like that’s happening a lot and it is helping people boost their 'careers'. But if you already know the outcome you’re kinda buying yourself in? Curious to hear some thoughts...



  3. Nice reading your thoughts in return as well! it's quite interesting to have this conversation on a public platform with people who are as curious about the mechanisms behind it. I have to post this in 2 times, it became a little longer than expected...

    I wanted to avoid sharing my personal experiences with bad journalism in order to keep focused on the general quest. What is it that causes musicians so much frustration reading certain negative articles and others not. Since I think , and as Jozef pointed out, most of us are sportive enough to cope with a regular negative review. Than why the need to make a distinction between good and bad journalism? Because I think in certain cases we are entitled - and maybe even obligated?- to reach out and confront people with what they wrote publicly about our art and understand why they wrote it. (Even though they may not remember it… )
    It's absolutely no way to seek revenge, but rather an understanding of something that might strike you as unjust whereas as other reviews manage to convey their negative thoughts in a totally acceptable way.

    Since you've asked, Raf, here some hypothetical example(s) of what, in my opinion, could qualify as bad journalism.

    We all have probably lived the frustrating sensation of being 'stoned' in public and have no way of defending the art which might have taken quite some dedication, time and effort to achieve. We feel that the author didn't grasp anything of what we'd hoped to convey, or worse, judging on what he writes and the comparisons he makes, it's actually clear he knows nothing about the processes and methods of the music he's reviewing. Neither does he know anything about the historical context or the conditions it was made in. Besides that, he also seems to be ignoring the musicians' career, past and current collaborations, let alone he could understand some of his overall approach to music and how this new work could possibly fit into that bigger picture.
    According to me, one of these reasons alone would suffice to qualify for bad journalism. But it all depends on how the article is written of course. If the author writes the article conscious of his possible lack of context and listening experience, it can still be a very good read, even as a 'negative article'. For instance, I could imagine the journalist could keep himself to describing the (bad) music as how it was perceived by him, taking neither joy nor pride in descending the artist and his music publicly. Or he could point out a hint of doubt regarding his own position in this field. Etc..
    This kind of respectful or 'conscious lack of expertise-' way of writing , is not the kind of bad journalism I'm describing though, in which the author does take a strong stance, making a satirical piece of art in favour of his own audience, while in the meantime he builds up his image as a 'journalist' and thus 'connaisseur' in the eyes of the not-so-acquainted-with-music audience. On top of that, he makes a bunch of mistakes with the credits and doesn't do his basic fact-checking. (who or how many people are playing, who wrote the music, when and where was it recorded etc..)

  4. This journalist says nothing constructive about the work he's reviewing, shows no sign of honestly questioning the artists' musical pursuit, nor is he declaring a tendency in art with which he doesn't agree. The music and the artist become merely the object of a literary rant based on the ideas of someone who's not even familiar with the matter he's writing about. (like us reviewing sewing machines indeed, or like a fruit journalist that likes to eat apples and has actually only reviewed apples but goes on a rant because lemons are yellow and sour. Without asking himself what lemons usually taste like or have ever tasted like. Concluding and convincing a large audience that lemons are bad for you-'cause he's the expert- and it so happens that most of the readers have actually never eaten an actual lemon.)

    These are just a couple of things that could go wrong with journalism. An example of good journalism for me would be the opposite: putting in context, being informed, having lots of listening experience in the area concerned and preferably keeping a certain level of respect towards the work that's reviewed.

    Of course the world doesn't come in black and white and I realise that subtle differences in tone and choice of words are hard to measure. Even more so on paper. Which makes it very difficult or probably impossible to objectively judge something as bad or good journalism. But I do believe that based on some of these criteria, and others, it should be perfectly normal for artists to reach out to journalists and at least start a conversation about what they wrote.
    To put it simple: if artists can be held responsible for their work, why not journalists?

    As for the reason why this is more a music journalism problem and not so much of a sports journalism problem: I guess because art isn't played by rules. And second, maybe, something to do with a complex mechanism of niches vs majority and the authority it brings with it. I guess if half of the population would be deeply into music, the journalism about it might be on another level too.

    Personally I'm not very interested in buying out press reviews. I don't think it's really adequate for the kind of music I do and it would be a shame to miss out on all these colourful and different opinions. But than again, that's just my opinion!

    1. Wow! Eli, I think you describe and analyse the whole matter exactly how I perceive it too. Thanks for having token the time to write that down so clearly.
      And Raf: yeah I guess we all get triggered by slightly different things when dealing with the outside world, hence also when reading reviews about our work. But for one thing I think it's only sane en encourageable to get in touch with the writers when we feel like it. There might be very different motivations for that, but for me it's most often about getting to know 'the world' and getting to know myself (which in a sens is basically the same).
      Rilke always does the trick :-)
      And you told me about the payed reviews, I wasn't really aware. It's a topic, for sure. A lot of labels pay for advertisement in the magazines that review their records, so you can imagine what kind of dynamics go with that. And in general: you can probably just presume that whatever practice is normal in business, has its equivalent, somewhere, in the music business.


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